IN-DEPTH NEWS FEATURE:
The years of preparation, hundreds of hours of training and countless sacrifices have paid-off for Tate Smith, 30, Nina Curtis, 24, and Jayden Hadler, 18. All three will be competing in the London Olympic Games that start on Jul. 27 and go until Aug 12. They will be amongst some 16,500 other athletes. And they will be vying for gold.
Some 200 nations will compete in 300 events at the London Games. Of this number, approximately 400 Australians will pit their mental and physical strength against other athletes, in hope of being victorious. However, it will only be those who have fully-developed their mind and body who will walk away with an ochre medal.
The Olympics is a Game of Wits
Stuart Walter, clinical hypnotherapist and author, has been training Olympic athletes since early 2008. Walter’s philosophy is based on mental preparation so that athletes can overcome any obstacles that can prevent them reaching their goal.
“I love sport. Watching athletes experience the pure joy of winning and also seeing their mind and body tested,” said Walter. “Preparing athletes mentally is so important and often not given the attention it deserves. My work with the mental state of athletes yields consistently high performance results,” he said.
Walter says that he was motivated to follow this line of sports training as he is passionate about sports and relates to athletes because he trained and had success with Tae Kwon Do.
“Having personally experienced the positive difference in performance, before and after hypnosis, I knew that it was something I had to share with fellow sports people who were striving to push the boundaries of their own physical and mental capabilities,” said Walter. “Mixing with fellow parents who are also clinical hypnotherapists and naturopaths has also inspired me to keep helping athletes,” he said.
Walter believes that athletes need to be mentally fit to compete, especially in an event as gruelling as the Olympics.
“Any athlete must begin with the end in mind. What is the end game? What do they want to achieve? Said Walter. “Next, they must build solid confidence in their ability to achieve the end goal. Do they believe they can and do it?” He said. “Belief is also about understanding their sport. I frequently need to challenge many beliefs athletes hold in order to break through mental blockages they have created, or that parents or coaches have inadvertently instilled.”
“The old ‘that is impossible,’ ‘you can’t do that’ and ‘it’s good to be nervous’ can all create unnecessary limitations to performance,” said Walter. “The ability to relax and get instantly into ‘the zone’ are my focus and my clients learn this through hypnotherapy and practice,” he said.
“Once self-belief has been established, visualisation becomes the key,” said Walter. “It is commonly accepted in sports psychology that sport is 80-90% mental. If this is the case, then it makes sense for mental workouts to be a large part of any professional training regime,” he said. “If an athlete can visualise training using perfect technique, this ultimately integrates into actual practice.”
Walter feels that in the lead-up to the Olympic Games that athletes need rely on trust to achieve their goals.
“Fully trusting their coaches and the work undertaken during training, as well as trusting in their ability to ‘turn on,’ eliminates a huge amount of performance anxiety,” said Walter. “Every client I have treated has learnt to maintain a positive state-of-mind by finding fun and excitement in training. This, then leads to a renewed confidence in the lead up to, and on, competition days,” he said. “Learning to relax and enjoy their abilities is important for any athlete in keeping focus, staying positive and performing at their best.”
“Obviously there is a level of natural talent and physiology required. However, persistance, belief and balance are paramount,” said Walter. “Persistance in knowing they can achieve and are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
Belief in their abilities and the strength to ignore detractors. An athlete must have the right focus in life, not just sport,” he said. “Then establishing a sport/life balance and remaining grounded are essential.”
Walter says training and technology were the concentration of coaches and sporting athletes, but now, the mind is the focus with more than 80% of sporting success being mind related.
“In the past, it was all about training and technology, but the future is in the mind.The person with the strongest mind is going to succeed,” said Walter. “I teach my athletes how to relax, define their goal and eliminate fears and doubts. I also teach them how to manage distractions and establish a strong sport/ life balance,” he said. “It is also important to visualise and set peak performance levels for optimum results and consistency.”
“All my research of sports people, coaches and studies of the mind say that success in sport between 80-90% mind related. For an athlete, having a solid belief in their abilities helps to push through any physical limitations,” said Walter.
“Take for an example a golfer,” said Walter. “He or she, may play the same course for 4-days, yet produce different scores every round. While playing conditions play a part in that, so does the state of mind,” he said. “We have all seen athletes blow up, fall, trip and miss shots under pressure. Keeping confidence and clarity of mind helps to eliminate these errors. When you have the ability to focus and relax, you perform well.”
When an athlete doubts themselves, says Walter, they start to lose confidence and cannot perform as well.
“To illustrate this, I like to use the example of a rubber band. Stress equates to tension on your body and mind, much like the state of a new rubber band,” said Walter. “When you stretch a new rubber band you do not get much movement. Then relax the rubber band and stretch it again with the same effort as before, and you get a greater range of motion,” he said. “When stress responses are activated the last thing the body wants to do is push more. Pushing through can lead to a greater chance of injury and poor results. At this stage it is crucial to relax and refocus the mind.”
“Self doubt often leads to reflecting on past results and your mind reliving the same experiences over-and-over, which can manifest in your performance,” said Walter. “Pressures created through expectations by coaches, parents and other team members can also weigh heavily. It is important that those people around the athlete are mindful of their impact on the athlete’s mental state,” he said.
Hypnosis works to eliminate doubts, says Walter.
“Hypnosis is so successful because it gets right to the root of the issues, doubts and fears that have developed in the athlete’s mind,” said Walter. “Acknowledging the source of those doubts and fears means that the athlete, through working with hypnotherapist, can then effectively eliminate them,” he said. “Hypnosis bypasses the conscious mind and targets the unconscious. Muscle memory is an example of this. We all know how to walk and run without having to stop and change feet mid-stride.”
“Hypnotherapy treatments are relaxing, effective and generally start at two to three sessions,” said Walter. “Following hypnosis an athlete will be competing at their potential and achieving personal bests every time.”
Walter says that the Olympics takes a mental toll on athletes.
“When you look at the bare structure of what it takes to be an Olympian you can appreciate why there is usually a mental toll,” said Walter. “Training for 10 years, 6 times a week, 6 hours a day. Then there is the strict diets, injuries and personal sacrifices,” he said. “All of this, then comes down to a matter of seconds, minutes, weight or length and the emotional pressure of performing is extreme.”
After competition, Walter says athletes should mentally recuperate.
“Working with retired Olympians, I can say that athletes should maintain a gentle training regime [after competition],” said Walter. “To take a break immediately, may cause mental instability and negative reactions in the body,” he said. “Most athletes, I know, get back into training straight away.”
One of Walter’s most nostalgic moments in his career was training the Australian Down Syndrome Swim Team.
“The Team became word champions by a huge margin,” said Walter. “Twenty-eight golds and all world records,” he said. “These athletes are all unknown with no support. They just had pure passion. We can all learn a lot from them and the support of the parents was an example of belief.”
Olympic athletes, Tate Smith, 30, competing in Flatwater Kayaking, Nina Curtis, 24, competing in Sailing (Match Racing), and Jayden Halder, 18, competing in the 100m Butterfly and 200m Medley, all agree that mental fitness is vital to achieving their goal of gold.
Flatwater Kayaking – Tate Smith, 30-years-old
Tate Smith, a plumber, who works on commercial properties on the Gold Coast, is also a ski coach at North Cliffe Surf Club, Surfers Paradise and ambassador of USANA Health Sciences.
“I have been kayaking for 11-years and I’d say I’m near peak now,” said Smith. “I have won a silver medal at the World Championships and also a number of World Cup medals. I have also won many Australian and Oceania championships,” he said.
” I believe I can compete amongst the best paddlers in the world, and I enjoy setting goals and working hard to achieve them,” said Smith. “Mental fitness is a massive part of the Olympic Games, and I have learned so much from my first Olympics in Beijing,” he said. “This will help this time around. But, personally, I will just concentrate on the processes in which I do things, and if I do all the little things right, the outcome will take care of itself.”
Smith says he will maintain his mental fitness in the lead up to the Olympics by relaxing a lot, and not thinking about paddling too much.
“You also really have to have good composure and self-belief in your lead up to a big event,” said Smith. “You have to be determined, focused, motivated and have a very good work ethic. You must also be able to handle adversity and be a good team player in my sport,” he said.
“The biggest issue I face is overtraining and injury,” said Smith. “This comes from pushing your body too hard sometimes. It’s a fine-line of doing too much and not enough. And you will find athletes tend to do too much most of the time,” he said. “To avoid health issues I like to ensure that my body is receiving all of the vital nutrients it needs. USANA has a great range of everything I need.”
Training for the Olympics is strenuous and constant says Smith.
“I always paddle in the morning around 6 a.m. for 1 hour, 20 minutes. The second session will be at 10.30 a.m. This is either a gym session or cross training, such as running. And the third session in the afternoon, on the water. This is either team boats or in my single kayak for an hour,” said Smith. “I do this program 6 days a week,” he said. “I also add in stretching, physiotherapy and recovery sessions every day.”
Smith views ups and downs in his sporting career as he does life.
“I see sporting ups and downs similar to lifes ups and downs,” said Smith. “You just have to learn by them, and understand why things happen. You also have to get straight back-up and keeping moving forward, revaluate and attack it again,” he said.
To help maintain his fitness levels, both physically and mentally, Smith follows a nutritional plan.
“I try to eat balanced healthy meal. Including a lot of vegetables and salads. I also take my USANA products 3 times a day with my meals to get the extra vitamins, antioxidants and minerals I need, ” said Smith. “I tend to cut out saturated fats and increase my protein a bit [as I get fitter]. And I increase the size of meals in accordance to how much [energy] I’m burning up,” he said.
“But, generally I like to follow a diet I can sustain all the time,” said Smith. “I tend to eat the same meal while I’m feeling good and racing good. And stretching is my fitness ritual before I compete.”
“Sleeps the best [for recuperation]. I also like watching movies and reading. And, I love going to the beach and being in the ocean,” said Smith. “You have to plan your life very well. The better planned you are the easier it is to juggle everything,” he said. “I like to write things down, evaulate them and work out the best way to attack things.”
“I think what I do puts an enormous stress on my body,” said Smith. I’m pretty much pushing my body to its maximum limit every day,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a good thing. But, it’s the price I pay to be an Olympian.”
Sailing (Match Racing) – Nina Curtis, 24-years-old
Nina Curtis, a full-time athlete on the Australian Sailing Team, began sailing when she was 7-years-old and match racing when she was 15. Over the last 4-years she has been focusing on her Olympic campaign.
“Being selected to represent Australia at the London Olympic games has been a massive achievement,” said Curtis. “I have also won bronze, silver and gold medals at the Woman’s Match Racing World Championships and I was awarded Australian female sailor of the year in 2010,” she said.
“I love to push myself to see what I am capable of, and at this level you are tested every day,” said Curtis. “I am also lucky enough to be very close to my team mates Olivia Price and Lucinda Whitty, and coach Euan McNicol,” she said. “We are the best of friends and it’s so much more rewarding doing what you love with great people.”
To prepare herself mentally for the Olympics, Curtis works with a psychologist.
“I work very closely with my fabulous psychologist Rosie Staminirovic,” said Curtis. “She helps me stay sane while touring, as well as developing good communication pathways between me and my team.”
“Just as we plan our physical preparation in the lead-up to an event, I also swear by managing my mental fitness or capacity,” said Curtis. “For me, it’s important to switch-off during my time-off and to slowly tune-in before a regatta,” she said. “This means reading notes, processing training blocks and watching racing footage.”
“Determination, patience and an ability to ‘reality check’ myself help me reach the top,” said Curtis.
But, this does not mean that Curtis does not encounter difficulties when training.
“For the past two years I have been a full-time athlete, and especially this year with virtually nothing else on my plate, it has still been such a juggle,” said Curtis. “Even in my scheduled times for training, there is a massive pile of emails to get through, race videos to watch, debriefing and a sporting campaign to manage,” she said. “I swear by writing lists. Without lots and lots of lists, and calendars, my life would be chaos.”
“We also have trouble with our hands and forearms. We spend so much time holding on to ropes, on water, and then weights in the gym that our hands get trashed and our forearms blow up,” said Curtis. “We spend a bit of time in recovery with ice and having our arms needled to help with this issue,” she said.
“Having an ability to ‘reality check’ yourself in a down time really helps you keep things in perspective,” said Curtis. “Also, I have fantastic support from my family, boyfriend and friends, and in the tricky times I am lucky enough to have people to lean on and talk too,” she said.
To maintain, and improve her level of fitness, Curtis trains hard and always keeps her weight above her natural mass.
“We spend the majority of our time training on water and we schedule our workouts around our sailing load,” said Curtis. “Typically we try to work out six times a week with one day of rest,” she said. “We alternate between weights session and cardio-base work and some more explosive anaerobic cardio work.”
“We have a weight limit, and in a windy venue like Weymouth it’s fastest to be as close to the limit as possible,” said Curtis. “For me, this means maintaining a weight that is above my natural weight,” she said. “We lift weights, eat as much protein as possible and put away a lot of food to stay at the weighted limit.”
“For me, it’s important to put good food in your body if you want to have the ability to perform well,” said Curtis. “Also as we are trying to increase muscle mass, to increase weight, so protein has become very important in my diet.”
“It does take determination. However, I love the training side of sport and eating well, so I think that makes it a lot easier,” said Curtis. “Also seeing results and the changes to your body can be very rewarding.”
Curtis says her trainer and ability to recuperate add to her success as an athlete.
“Every morning, before competing at the Olympics, I will go to my trainer, Andrew Verdon, and warm up with him,” said Curtis. “We make sure all the important muscles are switched-on and I have full mobility before racing,” she said. “I also love riding my bike down to the race course and getting a coffee on the way. It’s a easy way to get in the zone before racing.”
“At the Australian sailing camp, at the Olympics, we will have an awesome recovery centre and it’s the best way to recuperate after a day on the water,” said Curtis. “I also love getting in the water for a swim. It always leaves you feeling fresh, she said.
“Being an athlete has opened my eyes to a more holistic side of sport, exercise and health,” said Curtis. “I used to think it was all about training hard and no rest,” she said. “Now, with the help of the Australian Institute of Sport, I have learned about listening to my body, avoiding injury and managing recovery to be able to train harder when it counts. This has obviously taken a positive toll on my health and fitness.”
Men’s 100m Butterfly and 200m Individual Medley – Jayden Hadler, 18-years-old
Jayden Hadler, who is studying Bachelor of Sports Coaching and Administration at The Australian College of Physical Education, has been swimming since he was a young teenager.
“This is when I started to become really serious about my swimming,” said Hadler. “I really thought that I could make it as an elite swimmer,” he said. “I have been training seriously, since then.”
“This will be my third year on the National Team,” said Hadler. “In that time, I have achieved all the goals that I have put in place for myself,” he said. “I was extremely proud to make it on to my first Olympic Team in 2012. Another achievement was to win my first National title in 2011 for the 200m Butterfly. I also had a great meet at the 2010 Australian Age Championships, where I won 6 gold medals and 1 silver medal.”
Hadler’s motivation comes from a determination to succeed.
“I always enjoyed swimming and I thought that I was pretty good at it,” said Hadler. “I had a few people tell me that if I train hard I could really succeed at this,” he said. “The thought of making it on to the Australian National Team always motivated me to get to training on those early and cold winter mornings.”
In terms of mental fitness, Hadler is preparing for the Olympics as he would any other major competition.
“It is important that I don’t become overwhelmed with the idea of competing at my first Olympics,” said Hadler. “I feel that the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games and the 2011 FINA World Championships have given me the experience of international competition. This is helping me stay calm and mentally fit and not to get overwhelmed,” he said.
“The best way to maintain my mental fitness is to try and stay calm before an event,” said Hadler. “I try not to get too weighed down,” he said. “I like to imagine that I’m training and not think that I am at a major meet like a World Championships or an Olympics.
Commitment and drive to succeed are what powers Hadler through those tough days in the water.
“Like any job, you need to push through the tough days to get to the top,” said Hadler. “I am commited to my job and I am always looking for ways to improve my race and technique in order to improve my times,” he said.
“The main concern we have when we are training is the risk of an injury,” said Hadler. “We have a proper warm up and cool down, to ensure that we don’t over-work our bodies and cause damage to our muscles,” he said. “My coach, Brant Best, makes sure we always stretch to eliminate any risk of injuries that may cause a setback in our training and progress.”
Hadler’s training is comprehensive.
“I was training 6 days a week for approximately 21 hours,” said Hadler. My training consists of a mixture of swim and gym sessions. Brant ensures that there is a lot of variety in our schedule, so we can see improvements in our fitness and we don’t become bored with our training,” he said.
“I work really closely with Body Science,” said Hadler. “They have created a really good diet and eating plan for me. They ensure that I am eating the correct food at the right time and they help to alter my diet depending on the level and intensity of training I am doing at a certain point,” he said.
“My diet changes depending on the training cycle that I am in,” said Hadler. “I have to change the amount of carbohydrates and protein that I eat, depending on the energy levels that I use during training,” he said.
“I think at the moment, I am the fittest that I have ever been,” said Hadler. “I’ve noticed that I have been getting great results in the pool,” he said. “I place great importance on ensuring that I take good care of my body, in terms of training and diet. If I take care of my body, I will remain fit and healthy and I will continue to get the desired results.”
“I know that London is so close and this is something that I have been training my whole life to try and achieve. Knowing that I am going into my first Olympics, it’s not difficult to stick with my strict eating plan,” said Hadler. “It definitely takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be an elite athlete, but it is worth it and I wouldn’t change it for anything. But, after London, I will definitely be relaxing the diet a little bit,” he said.
“I would like to thank everybody for their support and their encouragement,” said Hadler. “It has really helped me get to where I am today,” he said. “I look forward to racing in London and doing Australia, my friends and my family proud.”